New COVID testing procedure draws confusion from students

As students returned to campus after a long winter break, the enforcement of COVID-19 community standards largely mimicked those in place during the fall. One noticeable difference was the transition to saliva based COVID-19 testing for all students, faculty and staff.

The turnaround times for test results were also different, with some students receiving their results less than 24 hours after their test. This new testing procedure prompted some students to speculate that

   St. Olaf had transitioned to rapid saliva testing, which the CDC recognizes as less accurate.

However,  an email sent to the St. Olaf community on Monday, Feb. 15, addressed the change in testing and attributed it to St. Olaf’s new partnership with Infectolabs America. Although a different procedure than the nasal swab, the Infectolab saliva test is a PCR test, meaning it detects the viral RNA of the COVID virus in a sample. Different from PCR, an antigen, or rapid test, detects viral proteins that fluctuate in the incubation period based on when the test is administered. Additionally, the ability to self-administer the test reduces the risk of St. Olaf community members contaminating outside volunteers, who previously administered nasal swab tests.

Enoch Blazis, head of the Coronavirus Task Force, explained that the switch to Infectolabs originated after COVID-19 cases spiked in Minnesota, placing more stress on the Mayo Clinic laboratory with which St. Olaf was previously partnered.

“The turnaround times for testing began to stretch longer and longer, and when we have students who need to be isolated and contact traced, it is important to get results back as soon as possible to protect our campus community,” Blazis said.

Infectolabs America is a German-based company that previously specialized in tick-borne disease testing, but the FDA granted Emergency Use Authorization and certification to Infectolabs to test for COVID-19. Its lab location in Minneapolis and the ability to prioritize St. Olaf testing samples made it so the change “just made sense” to Blazis and the Coronavirus Task Force.

For those worried about the prevalence of false positives, “the Minnesota Department of Health dictates that a positive is a positive, regardless of any subsequent negative tests. Although the consequences of a false positive are unfortunate, we will continue to follow the direction of health officials to keep our community safe,” Blazis said.